I often eat lunch at my desk or on my couch when I work from home. I have never given much thought to when or where I eat, but a recent brush with Ayurveda — the 5,000-year-old system of medicine with roots in India — has me rethinking the type of environment I eat in and how it affects my wellbeing.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Larissa Hall Carlson, an Ayurveda nutrition expert and yoga instructor at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, to get her thoughts on the small ways to change your environment while you eat. Ayurveda teaches that the environment you eat in affects your food and digestion. According to Carlson, however, it doesn't take much to change your environment for the better.
Whether or not you're directly interested in Ayurveda, the environmental practices that Carlson suggests are great lessons for anyone trying to squeeze a little more relaxation and joy into their daily routine.
A Conversation with Larissa Hall Carlson
The following is a conversation I had with Carlson about how she believes stress affects your eating, and how simple changes can make an impact.
1. What has Ayurveda taught you about stress and eating?
If you've ever experienced a sudden lack of appetite when relatives were arguing at the dinner table, you have already felt a sense for just how important a comfortable environment is for proper digestion. According to Ayurveda, food is best consumed when the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge — this is the "rest and digest" system that takes over when we're feeling safe and relaxed.
When eating in a lovely location, enjoying the company of upbeat friends, or just quietly taking in a meal, the comfy environment supports ease in the mind, which allows for a relaxed nervous system, and thus supports optimal digestive strength.
If you're eating in a stressful environment (e.g., amidst annoying noise pollution, people debating, or disturbing sights), then, according to Ayurveda, the sympathetic nervous system tends to take over — this is the "fight or flight" system that will essentially shut down appetite, pump stress hormones into the bloodstream, and direct blood away from the digestive tract and out to the limbs and head in order to take action.
None of this is particularly surprising, right? Whether it's mildly nerve-racking or extremely tense, I believe an uncomfortable environment will lessen our desire to eat and weaken the ability to properly digest whatever we can stomach. Even for those with the strongest of bellies or who are eating the healthiest of food, this negative dining environment can cause indigestion, gas and bloating, acid reflux, constipation, and a host of other discomforts.
2. How do you set up a positive eating environment?
Whether at home or at work, just a few simple changes can create a positive eating environment, sure to satisfy your palate, create ease in your belly, and invite contentment in your mind.
- Like to catch up on news during breakfast? Put aside political and world news updates until after eating. Savor your organic eggs and French-press coffee while catching up on the entertainment, comics, or science sections — filling your mind with inspiration, useful information, and wholesome amusement.
- Reclaim your dining area! Clear off clutter and set an inviting table with attractive placemats, candles, and fresh flowers. The pleasing setup will lure you to the table to sit, unwind, and appreciate each bite.
- Are you a mealtime TV watcher? Flip to an amusing sitcom or an uplifting Netflix documentary. Wait until after eating to catch up on action thrillers, zombie movies, and drama-filled reality shows.
- Sick of hearing coworkers complain during lunch? Switch things up and sit with a new group of colleagues who spend their valuable break time laughing and talking about exciting vacations and outdoor adventures.
- Short lunch break at work? Try a silent meal alone. In good weather, take your lunch outside to a park bench and savor a few quiet minutes to yourself. If stuck inside, find a quiet table by the window and focus your attention on trees, flowerbeds, or even the changing sky.
3. How do you create a good environment for eating at work?
Try these tricks for enjoying a relaxing, mindful meal at your desk.
- Shutdown: Sitting at your desk makes it too easy to work through lunch, so even if you only have five minutes, put your desktop to sleep and turn away from the computer. Focus attention on the color, aroma, taste, and texture of your meal.
- Breathe: Before eating, sweep away agitation and pressure from the workday by taking three relaxing breaths. Sit tall and close your eyes. Inhale deeply through your nose and release a slow, sighing exhale through your mouth. This short pause can increase body awareness, ease the mind, and establish relaxation in the belly.
- Nature: Gazing at nature fills the mind with positive impressions, so if you're stuck inside, bring wildlife inside! Place a small plant in your office to introduce the soothing element of nature (bamboo is a long-lasting choice), or set your screensaver to vibrant landscapes.
The big takeaways here are that you should attempt to create a relaxed environment while you eat, even if you only have five minutes to do so. If you like watching TV or reading while you eat, try to find things that are amusing and inspiring instead of things that will stress you out.